Like a Boy

Afghan boys are highly prized, so much so that the girls are forced to imitate them.

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Young Afghan children of the Nawbot village look watch in bewilderment as U.S. Army soldiers conduct a routine patrol of their village.

In modern day Afghanistan, life for many girls is far more complex than what meets the eye. Afghanistan society puts boys on a pedestal, thus what is a family to do when they are ‘unlucky’ and a boy heir is nowhere to be seen? Controversially, many Afghan families decide to make one up; by choosing to dress up one of their daughters as a “bacha posh” which directly translates to as “dressed up as a boy”. The transition process is relatively simple and uncomplicated. Often the youngest daughter’s hair is cropped, and she is dressed in typical Afghan boy’s clothing. The final stage is adapting the girl’s name so it sounds masculine. Yet, her transition will never remain complete. At home her parents are likely to refer to her as a ‘daughter’ and will often give her girl’s toys to play with.

This peculiar practice is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan. Nor it can be acquainted with a particular social class, nor geographic area. The whole country seems to be involved in this grand dress up game. Afghan boys are highly prized.

So why does this goes on? The reasons are frankly unimaginable to Western people. The most common reasons for dressing up your daughter as a son are the societal pressures that call for a male heir, economic needs and even more bizarrely the superstition that a “bacha posh” can lead to the birth of a real son.

Oddly, even a made up son can work wonders in increasing the family’s social standing. The “bacha posh” has greater chances of receiving a better education, working part time and even earning the right to escort her sister in public. This allows the dressed up girl to experience freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a strictly separated society.

There is a catch. The opportunistic game of dress up always comes to an end. Once the girl approaches puberty she is ordered by her family to ‘switch back’. The transition can happen abruptly and almost overnight. The “bacha posh” just like any other young Afghani female is expected to wear a burqa, socialise with other women and most crucially adapt to the looming prospect of an arranged marriage. The “bacha posh” is stripped of all rights she enjoyed as a male.

A life of a dressed up girl entails a fine balance of privileges and burdens. For some it can be a liberating experience of growing up as a boy, yet for many it can be far more difficult. There is much to be said about the psychological impacts of the double life to these young women. Despite the fact that the young girl may benefit from her dress up, the ulterior motive behind her transition never has the young individual in mind. The family will benefit. That is enough. But are they only really coping, in the best way they can, to an already difficult situation?

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